Avoiding Backroom Accidents

The customer?s engagement ring hadn?t been removed in 25 years. Two prongs were broken, and the stone was held in place by a quarter-century?s buildup of hardened detergent residue, petrified hand lotion, and simple dirt. The space under the stone?s pavilion was packed solid. It was impossible even to tell if the gem was a diamond.

The staff used the ultrasonic, the steamer, and even lye, all to no avail. The shop foreman decided to boil the ring in sulfuric acid. Moments later, the shop, offices, and store showroom were filled with choking fumes. Several staff members were forced outside. Fortunately, there were no customers in the store, and none of the employees had asthma, allergies, respiratory disease, or a bad heart. Also luckily, there were no OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) inspectors nearby.

Many jewelers keep a shop on the premises for sizings, chain shortenings, minor repairs, prong tightenings, and custom design. The service promotes the business and brings in extra income. But shops come with risk: Repairing jewelry requires acids, poisons, open flames, abrasives, and solvents. Every bench jeweler has a tale of pain, injury, or illness caused by someone?s carelessness or ignorance about safety.

Bench jewelers aren?t the only people at risk. Salespeople in most stores run in and out of the ?back room? to clean customers? jewelry, consult with the jeweler, and?too often?to get lunch. And while the bench jeweler may understand the dangers in the shop, often the sales staff does not?until an accident happens.

Even though you may not have had an accident yet, you may still be at risk, says jeweler Charles Lewton-Brain of Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Your safety and the safety of your staff, your family, and your customers depends on the quality of the environment you provide. To keep that environment safe, take the preventive steps outlined here.

Fire and hot objects. Whether you?re casting, soldering, or welding, fire is part of jewelry making and repair. A variety of risks are associated with it. For example, many jewelers dip jewelry into boric acid and alcohol as a firescale retardant before soldering. They burn off the alcohol with the torch. Lewton-Brain recalls a time when he knocked his container over, had a fire, and needed to use his fire extinguisher. He says other jewelers have been burned when the flaming liquid spilled on them.

Jewelers keep their torches hanging on a hook close at hand. The torch is often lit. A salesperson leaning over the bench to see what?s going on can easily ignite hair or clothing.

Live flames aren?t the only danger. A piece of jewelry that?s just been soldered or buffed doesn?t look hot, but if you accidentally pick one up, you?ll get burned. ?If you?re working in the store, you should know the minimum about the shop,? advises Torry Hoover of Hoover & Strong, a jewelry manufacturer in Richmond, Va. ?You should show people how you don?t pick up a piece of jewelry after it?s been soldered.? Steamers, hot plates, and pickle jars pose dangers as well.

Torches are connected to gas tanks, which can explode when knocked over. Jeweler Bruce McKay of Portland, Ore., who leases space in a mall jewelry store, always worked with a 2 1/2-gallon propane tank. Fire officials eventually decided that all jewelers in the mall should discard propane in favor of natural gas. ?It doesn?t have as many danger problems as the propane,? says McKay.

Overloaded electrical systems also can spark a fire, warns Santa Rosa, Calif., jeweler Linda Weiss, who was one of the first to address the risks in jewelry making. ?Retailers use whatever electrical outlets are in the store. They don?t generally have an electrician come in and upgrade the system. So as they add the shop on, they overload.? Even if you don?t have a fire, you risk blackouts and compromised security. To prevent the risk of fire in a small shop, take these steps:

  • Learn your town?s fire regulations and determine all the fire hazards in your shop. Install smoke detectors and keep the proper kinds of fire extinguishers on hand and properly situated.

  • Use bright yellow tape to designate an area around the jeweler?s bench prohibited to sales staff. Alternatively, isolate ?hot? areas (soldering or casting sites) from the rest of the workshop with fireproof walls. Provide proper ventilation.

  • Clamp all gas tanks to the wall and label them clearly?identify the gas they contain and whether they?re full or empty. Consider natural gas as an alternative to propane.

  • Have an electrician make sure your electrical system is up to handling the equipment in a shop. Keep the electrical panel clear so it can be reached in case of emergency.

Fumes and gases. Jewelry shops are full of fumes?from soldering, hot alloys, flux, burning wax, vulcanizing rubber, etc. Glues, epoxy, solvents, alcohol, ultrasonic cleaning solutions, and lye all add their gases to the air. At the least, these smell offensive. At worst, they can harm your health, immediately or over time. Cadmium-based solders can damage the brain, nervous system, kidneys, and lungs. Fumes from fluoride-based fluxes can convert to hydrofluoric acid in the lungs. Sulfuric acid and sodium bisulfate (Sparex) can irritate both skin and lungs. Zinc, copper, and nickel (all used as alloys in precious metals) also cause damage.

One solution to the fume problem is to use substitutes whenever possible, suggests Hoover, whose company manufactures a cadmium-free solder. He also recommends a cyanide-free plating solution. Jewelers who still insist on using the more toxic options need exceptional ventilation. The ventilation provided by a cooking hood is not sufficient, says Weiss. It simply draws the fumes past the jeweler?s nose and eyes. ?What you really need is a downdraft or tabletop exhaust,? she advises. ?The opening of the exhaust is at the level of your hands.? This pulls fumes away from the jeweler?s face.

Fumes must be vented outside, not just blown around. In malls, which often regulate venting, this can be a problem, says Hoover. In multi-level malls, vents might have to run through another merchant?s space. Bruce McKay solves the ventilation problem by maintaining two workspaces. Operations that require excellent ventilation, such as casting and plating, take place at his second location. To prevent problems with fumes:

  • Provide excellent downdraft ventilation at the jeweler?s work sites.

  • Create a well-vented space for performing all fume-producing procedures?such as soldering and epoxying?suggest Portland, Ore., artist/jewelers Joe and Linda Apodaca.

  • Clean exhaust hoods and filters regularly.

  • Keep all solvents, acids, and fluxes tightly capped when not in use.

  • Use products that produce less-toxic fumes.

Solvents, acids, cyanide. Whether it?s the ammonia in the ultrasonic solution or deadly cyanide, jewelers use dozens of compounds to glue, unglue, remove dirt and tarnish, test metal, and etch. With proper precautions, most can be used safely. Used carelessly, they can cause harm.

Ultrasonic solution is the compound that salespeople most frequently come into contact with. It may seem harmless, but it?s a good idea to keep your hands out of it. Whether it?s a commercial cleaner or a mix of ammonia and liquid detergent, these solutions can cause dermatitis as well as cracking and sensitization of the skin, allowing dangerous materials to enter the body.

Far worse is the lye solution found in many shops, which is used to clean extremely dirty jewelry. McKay keeps a pot of it in his shop and tries to teach salespeople to use it safely. But one associate cleaned her own bracelet in the solution and didn?t rinse it carefully afterward. When she put the hollow bracelet on, the lye solution seeped out and burned her wrist. Imagine what might have happened if she had delivered the bracelet to a customer.

Cyanide is a component of most plating solutions. Cyanide solution is also an efficient tarnish remover that sits in glass or plastic jars in many shops. It?s not uncommon for sales staff to take a chain back to the shop, dip it, rinse it, and give it back to a customer.

Cyanide is deadly. It enters the body through fumes or ingestion as well as through the skin. If you have a cut on your hands, it can go directly into the bloodstream. Low exposure can cause breathing difficulties, eye irritations, heart pains, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, blood changes, headaches, loss of appetite, and an enlarged thyroid, according to Lewton-Brain. High levels damage the brain and heart and cause death. Yet Seattle artist/jeweler Andy Cooperman reports that cyanide stripping was done in the lunchroom sink at one store where he worked. To prevent injury or illness through the use of solvents, acids, and cyanide:

  • Be aware of the dangers. Get a Material Safety and Data Sheet (MSDS) on all solutions used in the shop. These contain important first-aid information as well as data on the risks of these chemicals to pregnant women. Put them in one binder and make sure everyone knows where they are and how to read them.

  • Use copper wire hooks or perforated plastic baskets to dip jewelry into ultrasonic solution.

  • If lye is used, the area must be well-ventilated, and users must wear safety goggles. Lye can damage the eyes.

  • Working with acids requires a fume hood, splash goggles, gloves, rubber aprons, a neutralizer such as baking soda, and a nearby sink. An eyewash station?accessible to staff of all heights?should be available.

  • Store chemical solutions in the correct containers?preferably those from the manufacturers?and make sure they?re labeled clearly and accurately. ?Jewelers often pour the solution into another bottle and don?t mark it,? says Hoover. ?I?ve had jewelers call to find out what they had because the previous jeweler hadn?t marked the bottle.? Keep no more of these substances on hand than is absolutely necessary.

  • Store acids in unbreakable containers in a noncombustible acid-storage cabinet. Store them separately from cyanide-based solutions and do not use acids near cyanide: If spilled together, they form hydrogen cyanide gas like that used in prison gas chambers.

  • If possible, replace all cyanide-based solutions with less toxic ones. Cyanide should be used only where there is adequate ventilation, and users should wear gloves and protective clothing. Keep a cyanide kit on hand and train employees in its use. Sales personnel should not use cyanide.

Power equipment. The buffing machine is the major culprit in power accidents. Buffers slice flesh, amputate fingers, and sometimes scalp jewelers. John Thompson, a jeweler in Laguna Beach, Calif., remembers the time a wire scratch brush caught a lock of his shoulder-length hair and twisted it around the spindle. His head was jerked against the machine, leaving him with a two-day headache. In her first week on the job, Cindy Lunceford, who works with McKay, was polishing a chain wrapped around a holder (the correct procedure), but she hadn?t removed the price tag. It snagged on the buffing wheel, and the chain was torn out of her hand. As it whipped around, it sliced through her apron and shirt, cut into her chest, and narrowly missed her face. Tim McCreight, in his book The Complete Metalsmith (Davis Publications, 1991), writes, ?Never polish chains on the buffing wheel unless you have an oversupply of fingers.? To prevent injuries on the buffer:

  • Tie hair back, or, preferably, tuck it up under a cap.

  • Sales staff should not touch the buffer unless instructed by the jeweler. McKay teaches salespeople to buff rings, but he forbids them to polish chain.

Airborne particles. Jewelry making is dusty. Buffing spins particles of polishing compounds into the air. Soldering on asbestos pads blows off microscopic fibers. (You should not have any asbestos in any form in your shop at all because of its carcinogenic risk.) Sawing and sanding spawn particles of zinc, nickel, and copper that jewelers and others inhale.

Some of this dust floats in the air; some is so small you can?t see it. But particles of asbestos and metals cannot be expelled from the body. Over time, they scar the lungs, making breathing difficult and sometimes causing death. In addition, fine copper and nickel particles can damage the eyes and irritate the skin.

The silica found in tripoli buffing compound and in casting investment can cause silicosis. Many jewelers breathe investment dust without thinking about it. Worse, they quench hot flasks in water, and the steam drives particles of silica deep into their lungs. To prevent illness from free-floating dust:

  • Work with the material under water or with wet sanders whenever possible.

  • Wipe up dust frequently with damp cloths and mops.

  • Supply downdraft ventilation in all dust-generating work areas.

  • Wear a respirator when investing or quenching.

  • If possible, isolate dust-producing areas, such as casting and polishing. Provide effective ventilation and appropriate safety equipment.

Thinking safe. Safety should become second nature for you and your staff. Post reminders around the shop: the more graphic, the better. After a jeweler in Lewton-Brain?s shop got her long hair caught in the buffer, she had pictures taken of the bald spot that resulted, wrote a poem about the incident, and incorporated both into a frame with the hank of hair. Lewton-Brain hung it over the buffer. There hasn?t been another such accident since.

There are other ways to make the point. Lewton-Brain suggests posting a model or drawing of bony fingers next to the lye pot along with the procedure that must be followed when using the lye. He also recommends marking all potentially dangerous areas with yellow tape. Equipment that requires training or supervision should be marked with yellow tape, too.

Here are safety steps in addition to those already mentioned:

  • Provide safety equipment for your bench jewelers and insist on its use. Safety goggles are useless if left hanging on the hook.

  • Set up a safety routine for each task, write it down, and post it conspicuously in each area?include seemingly innocuous procedures such as using ultrasonic solution.

  • Check all equipment, hoses, motors, vents, and filters regularly for wear, damage, and dirt. Post the inspection, replacement, and cleaning schedule conspicuously and put one person in charge of it.

  • Lay out the shop so that no one has to reach across flames, there are no cords or chairs to trip over in traffic areas, and traffic circulates in an orderly manner.

  • Keep the shop clean. Put tools and supplies away.

  • Make sure all exits are clearly marked and free of obstacles. If exits are barred or gated for security, make sure employees know how to get out quickly.

  • Dispose of all chemicals, solvents, glues, and acids correctly.

  • Keep first aid boxes stocked and clearly marked. Consider reimbursing staff members who take CPR or first aid classes.

  • Use safer substitutes whenever possible, but be careful when using a material for a purpose it wasn?t designed for. Some jewelers use white correction fluid to retard solder flow. But heat breaks down the trichloroethylene in the base of the fluid into phosgene gas, chlorine gas, and hydrochloric acid fumes.

  • Make safety part of your training program. Update employees regularly.

  • Don?t combine the shop and lunchroom, no matter how convenient it seems. Employees should not be at risk of ingesting dangerous chemicals with their food.

  • Post ?Wash Your Hands? signs. Make sure work aprons and coats are washed regularly.

  • Consider appointing one person as health and safety officer, responsible for posting and updating procedures, training employees, and working with OSHA and fire officials when necessary.

This may sound expensive, but Weiss asks, ?How do you figure the cost of losing your normal breathing capacity or kidney function?? Most jewelers who have taken safety to heart say that working safely ends up helping employees work more efficiently as well.

Joe and Linda Apodaca have always had a home shop, and they had a list of rules for their growing children to follow when they visited. The kids simplified those rules to one: ?Everything is poison.? That?s an apt motto for salespeople, too.

Do?s and Don?ts for the Bench Jeweler:

  • Wash your hands?often!

  • Do not eat or smoke in the shop.

  • Before eating or smoking, remove work gloves, ban- danas, aprons, smocks.

  • Keep all acids and poisons capped.

  • Store potentially hazardous substances in the original containers according to manufacturers? instructions.

  • Wear protective clothing and use protective equipment at all times.

  • Keep hair tied back when working with power equipment.

  • Wear a visorless cap when working around open flames and torches.

  • Clean up all spills immediately. Wear a respirator and gloves if an area or substance contains potential health hazards.

  • Use an industrial-type vacuum wet mop instead of sweeping.

  • Wash work clothes and aprons frequently.

Sharon Elaine Thompson is a freelance writer from Salem, Ore., who has covered the jewelry industry for many years.